In the struggle to keep your horse sound, sane and healthy on the road, getting to the horse show is only half of the battle.
Once your horse arrives, the next challenge is helping him adapt to a totally foreign environment, and, hopefully, preparing him correctly so he peaks just in time for optimum performance.
Unfamiliar stabling, lack of turnout, around-the-clock activity and an erratic schedule are just a few of the things that show horses and their teams must work around.
The transition from home to show is easier on some horses than others. Fortunately, most horses who spend a significant amount of time on the road will quickly adjust and face few issues.
“The top-level horses are so used to settling in—they’ve done it so much it’s just another place to them. It’s harder for the babies,” said Emma Ford, head groom for Olympic eventer Phillip Dutton.
For the younger horses, Ford doesn’t recommend doing anything out of the ordinary.
“We really just tend to their needs; we don’t do anything specifically. I generally do whatever I would do at home. I try to keep same meal times and make sure they have plenty of hay in front of them all the time,” she said. “They learn to settle in to the routine.”
Maintaining your horse’s program is key to ensuring that he adjusts easily to horse show digs and encounters minimal issues, both physical and otherwise.
“Try to get them into a routine at the shows similar to what it is at home. Feed at similar times with similar types of feed and try to give them the normal amount of exercise they would get,” said Duncan Peters, an FEI-licensed veterinarian who practices out of Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, Lexington, Ky.
“A lot of the problem is that something is going on 24 hours a day, which is different than at home. Try to keep the other factors similar to what they are at home. Keep the same regimen going, whether you’re on the road or at home,” he continued.
It’s Not Easy Being A Show Horse
Between late-night braiding, early morning hacks and missed meals, the erratic schedule of a horse show can be tough on a horse, especially when it’s for an extended period of time.
Peters noted that something as simple as unfamiliar tack may boost stress levels.
“Changing bridles or tack can add stress, especially if you don’t use them at home. It can make the horse all of a sudden say ‘this is different’ and create anxiety,” he said.
Early morning and late nights are something that humans must cope with at horse shows, but lack of sleep takes its toll on horses as well.
Peters said, “Horses can have sleep deprivation too, whether it be from going to Europe or running cross-country. They get that mental stress related to that.”
Kate Considine, owner of hunter/jumper show barn Willowbrook Stables, Lake View Terrace, Calif., chooses to balance out all of these stressors by making sure that horses get some form of reward for their efforts.
“It’s important to make sure that every day is not a work day,” she said. “We manage their schedule so they only work hard a few days a week. If they’re fit and doing their job, making them work every day can really make them resent working.”
Considine said most of her horses get used to the stresses that come along with traveling and being in new places, but occasionally they don’t, and she has to make accommodations.
“I have one horse who is 15 years old, but he gets so nervous in the trailer that he’ll throw himself from side to side,” she said.
“He doesn’t do anything wrong, but we give him a little [sedative]. Sometimes we have to take him to the show a day earlier, so that it clears his system in time for showing,” she explained.
A frequent challenge for many barns is turnout while on the road—or the lack thereof.
The secret to keeping your steed happy and healthy without his or her daily dose of greenery? “We do a lot of hand-grazing and hand-walking,” said Ford. “Putting them in the stall for so long is hard on them. As much as you can get them out of the stall, you should.”
Most of the horses under Ford’s care are used to spending at least four hours per day in turnout when they’re at their home base of True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pa.
At shows, Ford tries to get each horse out of its stall for 30 minutes to an hour per day before the horses go to work. Depending upon the number of horses she has under her care, she will also try to hand-dry them outside after a bath.
Considine also subscribes to Ford’s philosophy and makes sure to rent a turnout paddock when her barn is at a show for two weeks or more.
However, Considine does face a slightly different problem than Ford when she brings her show string to the East Coast.
“It’s hard for the California horses to come east,” she said. “The most fearful thing for me is the first time you turn them out in the big grass paddock. That can be scary! We don’t really have those in California.
“You have to watch them running like crazy the first time they’re on grass, and you really have to watch their intake since the grass is so different out on the East Coast,” she continued.
In addition to maintaining your horse’s peaceful state of mind, hand-walking and hand-grazing also serves a multitude of physical benefits.
Richard Wheeler, a veterinarian at Palm Beach Equine Medical Center, based in Wellington, Fla., noted that movement and exercise is particularly good for gut motility, minimizing the risks of ulcers and colic.
Swelling of the legs, or stocking up, is another common issue that can be alleviated, if not prevented entirely, by hand-walking or grazing.
Stabling Should Be A Home Away From Home
Keeping the show horse content in his stall is also extremely important. Horse show stalls are frequently much smaller and less comfortable than the cushy permanent stabling that most horses are used to, but a few things can make the experience more pleasant for the horse.
“Some people will use something they keep in their stalls at home and take that with them to shows so the horse has that familiarity and has that feeling,” said Peters. “It’s like a person going to a hotel room and bringing their own pillow.”
For example, Ford tries to bring her own bedding when heading to an event. “We use straw at home,” said Ford. “It’s more comfortable, and when the stalls have clay floors, it’s much better. When the floors are clay and you use shavings, horses can dig through the shavings and hit the bottom pretty hard.”
Even stabling order is important. “Horses that are normally stabled nearby at home should be kept together at shows,” said Peters.
A Day In The Life Of A Top Groom
At the time of her interview, Ford was grooming for Dutton at The Event At Rebecca Farm (Mont.) and described the process of getting her show string settled in at the event.
“We arrived here in Montana on Monday and settled them in,” she said. “On Tuesday morning, they all got a 40 minute hack—nothing strenuous, mostly walk, some jogging. [Dutton] did a light flat that afternoon, then the next day they go back on their regular work schedule.”
Wheeler recommended a similar adjustment period of a couple of days of light exercise before returning to regular work.
In addition to making adjustments regarding turnout, Ford also frequently has to adjust her horses’ schedules to fit in with competition times.
“Early dressage times can make it tough on the horse’s schedule. At home, the first horses don’t get ridden until 8 a.m.,” Ford said.
At Rebecca Farm, Ford had to deal with the opposite situation: One of her horses had a dressage time at 5:30 p.m., which is past the time that Ford likes to feed and have all the horses put away for the evening.
“He won’t get his dinner,” she said, “but he’ll eat a later lunch and then I’ll feed him a late night meal around 7 or 8 p.m.”
Little adjustments such as this, while not ideal, are often necessary to keep horses at their happiest on the road.
- Allow your horse a few days to settle in to his new environment, if possible.
- Get your horse out of his stall as much as possible.
- Minimize changes in bedding, feed and tack.
- Don’t make every day a work day.